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ENGLISH VERSION3 сентября 2008 7:00

What does Europe teach us? They face an even bigger problem. Part 1

Brussels, the capital of the EU and NATO, took KP journalist Darya Aslamova by surprise. The city is bursting with contradictions
Darya Aslamova in the center of Brussels.

Darya Aslamova in the center of Brussels.

Чему научит нас Европа? У них самих большая... проблема. Часть 1

A dangerous conflict is unfolding in the heart of Europe as the world discusses the recent war in the South Caucasus. Belgium's two historical communities — the Walloons and the Flemings — are aching to split the country in half. Interestingly, the nation's capital, Brussels, is home to the EU and NATO headquarters — institutions that adamantly spoke out against Russia's military actions in Georgia. But now it seems this key EU nation may face a complicated territorial dispute of its own.

"Why are you Russians so racist?" said Lauren, my friend and colleague in Brussels. We were sitting on Gran-Plas Square drinking a cold mug of beer. The question came a bit unexpected. "You don't get along with Georgia, Estonia or Ukraine. You also bombed Chechnya. What have the Chechens done to you personally?"

"To me?" I asked. "They beat me up once at a university dorm. I even filed a case with the police, but they were too afraid to do anything about it."

"Okay, but that's just an example of domestic hostility," he said condescendingly. "What I meant was something else. Europe's cherished democratic values are simply absent in Russia."

"What do you mean?" I said. "The whole world lives by the rules of domestic hostility. States are just like neighbors who constantly complain about where the fence was raised. Let's take you, for example, Lauren. You're a Walloon. Why do you hate your fellow Flemish citizens so much?"

He couldn't resist the bait. "The Flemish are just a bunch of sons of bitches," he yelled. "We'll have our way with them! Look, how can you compare the Flemish to the Chechens! This is an entirely different issue. Flanders is just one writhing nest of extremism."

I chuckled as he continued with his tirade. Lauren was getting a bit loud and heads started turning in our direction.

"Well, who is the racist now?" I asked him when he quieted down. "People are just inclined to hate. It's only natural. Conflicts are simmering everywhere. Belgium just put a temporary lid on the situation. The difference between rich and poor countries is their degree of hate relative to their temperament and their ability to provide graceful form to hostility. Here's a metaphor for you. When a man beats his wife in the slums, the news spreads quickly among his neighbors. The apartments are small and the walls are thin... But when spouses fight in their huge houses in the suburbs, no one suspects a thing until they divorce. The wife just puts her tonal cream on in the morning, powders her sore nose and takes her kids to school. They are the perfect picture, just like in Belgium."

Accidental state

Last autumn, a practical joker put a scandalous lot up for bid on an Internet auction: "Belgium. A Three-Part Kingdom. Opening Price: 1 Euro. Note: The country can be purchased as a whole, although it's certainly not recommended."

Belgium is the EU's quiet capital and a symbol of European unity. But the country is slowly falling apart.

The country's Prime Minister Yves Leterme referred to Belgium as the result of a historical misunderstanding. It is a relatively young nation that was created in the post-Napoleon period (1830) as a military buffer between France and Germany. The country had no unifying ideas or aims, and a staged monarchy and complicated system of governance (six governments and six parliaments in three regions — Flanders, Walloon and Brussels).

The Belgian nationality is an ephemeral and anecdotal concept. Locals joke that Flemings and Walloons can be found everywhere, but there's no such thing as a Belgian. The two nations live together reluctantly under one umbrella. Its difficult to know just how long they have been warring. They speak different languages, read separate newspapers, watch different TV programs and root for their own football teams, celebrate different holidays and their children go to different schools... They don't intermarry. It's easier to find a mixed Arab-Jewish couple in Jerusalem than a Flemish-Walloon family in Brussels.

I remember the confused face Le Soir political journalist Alan Lalleman made when I asked him if he knew anyone in a mixed marriage. After taking a few moments to think, he said no one came to mind. "But how is that possible!" I asked. "In Brussels, Walloons marry blacks, Asians and Arabs, but they can't marry Flemings because they speak another language?!"

Alan said he had several Flemish friends living in Brussels and even contacts on the "other side." That was his phrase: "contacts." He is lucky. Most Flemings and Walloons don't talk to each other. Walloons think Flemings are greedy peasants who speak a strange language and Flemings think Walloons are uptight French aristocrats who suck the blood out of the Flemish region. Their hatred has deep historical roots and residents on both sides discuss the enmity without end. They would have separated long ago if not for economic reasons.

Flanders is enormously wealthy and Wallonia is extremely poor. In the 1960s, Flanders helped propel a second industrial revolution in Europe thanks to its rich agricultural sector. The region built roads and automobile and oil-manufacturing plants and the Antverpen port is now the second largest in Europe. Eighty percent of all the world's diamonds are produced in the area. The region's economic development is double Wallonia's, and unemployment is 2.5 times less than in the neighboring French-speaking region.

Each year, Flanders transfers an enormous amount of money — 10-12 billion euro — to Wallonia's budget. For comparison's sake, the EU only gives 300 million euro in aid to Palestine each year. Economists estimate every Fleming buys his/her Walloon neighbor a new automobile once every three years.

If Belgium collapses, Wallonia will be up a long creek with no paddle. It's no surprise the Walloons aren't burning with desire to become independent. The Flemings, on the other hand, can't wait to throw off the excess Walloon weight and make their centuries-old dream come true.

Another sparring point is Belgium's historical capital, Brussels, which is mainly inhabited by German-speaking Walloons. Who will have the rights to the heart of the EU once Belgium falls?

Occupied Brussels

It was 22:00 when I got back to my small cozy hotel in the historical center — just a stone's throw from the main square.

As I approached the entrance, I saw a large crowd of no less than 200 Arabs on the street surrounded by journalists with microphones. They were staring at a crane near an old building across the street. Two people sat on top with their legs dangling over.

"What's going on?" I asked the cameramen.

"The Arabs were living in that building over there for several years," he said. "But now the owners want to renovate the building and throw them out. The police are still negotiating with them, and we're waiting to see if they'll jump."

"Can't you just use force?" I asked. "Or send in the SWAT team?"

"What will their lawyers say about that?" he asked.

"Lawyers?!" I replied puzzled. "I thought you said they were illegal emigrants?"

The cameraman looked at me strangely. "Everyone without papers has lawyers in Belgium," he said. "It's normal."

The crowd got louder. I took out my small camera to take a photo and a drunken Arab jumped towards me. He spit at me and started waving his hands emphatically.

"That idiot doesn't want his photo taken," the cameraman said. "Don't pay any attention."

"Messier, this is a public place!" he yelled to the Arab in French. "If you don't want your photo taken, then get out of here."

A scandal ensued. I pressed my purse to my chest tightly and slowly headed to the hotel.

I awoke to police sirens at one in the morning. Looking out the window, I saw three black bouncers standing in front of a dance club beating three Arabs. Their Middle Eastern friends buddies stood nearby.

Someone stuck his head out a neighboring window smoking a cigarette. "I can't sleep three nights already," he told me. "These fucking Arabs! All we need to do is bring over the camels.You can't tell Brussels apart from Abu Dabi anymore!"

"Maybe you should call the police?" I suggested.

"Yeah, sure thing! The police don't want to get involved in this! In the Arab district?!" he said.

"What do you mean?" I asked. "This is the historical center of Brussels!"

"So what?" he replied. "There isn't one white person here anymore. Only Arabs and tourists. All the white people moved to the suburbs a long time ago."

The fight continued all night.

The next morning, I looked at Brussels through different eyes. I began to understand why they were so many empty windows and deserted homes in the district. Pregnant Arabs strolled down the sidewalks with their yapping children. On Masnikov Street, which was once known for its class and expensive restaurants, black waiters praised Belgian cuisine. The only white maitre d' was from Tunisia.

Read the following installment in our next issue.

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